Random bits of U.S. women’s pro soccer history

This week, I participated in a roundtable discussion (sort of — we didn’t see anyone else’s answers until today) on WPS’s demise, and Julie Foudy sent us scrambling down Memory Lane with an espnW column about the next steps in pro women’s soccer.

Taking the roundtable first: It’s a little humbling to answer a question and then have someone closer to the situation give a diametrically opposite answer. That’s what happened when I was asked about the effect the WPS’s folding will have on youth soccer. I said none. Melissa Henderson, who actually plays, said millions of little girls will have their dreams crushed.

In the tangible sense, I’m right. Millions of girls play soccer, and even if WPS had eight healthy teams, only a couple hundred of them would be playing in the league. In WPS’s last season, I think the league had fewer American pro players than my local club had at the U8 level. Thousands of women are currently in college on at least a partial scholarship; maybe 100 have any reasonable hope of getting paid to play anywhere. Generally, kids aren’t playing sports or participating in activities in the hopes of going pro. I never thought of being a professional piano player, even though I nearly wound up a professional music-type person. (My college music department loved me for reasons I can’t fully explain.) My elementary school’s chess club isn’t full of people hoping to be the next Nakamura — I doubt they even know who he is.

But in the intangible sense, Melissa’s right. Seeing women playing pro soccer gives a sense that anything’s possible. Losing that is a disappointment.

Over to Foudy’s piece: There is a small contingent of keyboard warriors (that’s the MMA term for guys who act tough behind their computer keyboards) who will never forgive Foudy for comments they’re not even sure she actually made back in 1999 at the height of Women’s World Cup mania. Let’s ignore that and focus on actual facts.

But there were some conflicts between the women’s stars and the U.S. Soccer establishment at that time. And that’s led to some interesting historical research in some quarters of the Web.

Summing up, randomly:

1. After the ’99 Cup, the USWNT sought to get paid a bit more. There was a player boycott for a 2000 tournament in Australia before the team and U.S. Soccer made a deal.

2. MLS’s Mark Abbott, the key man behind the single-entity structure and other aspects of MLS’s ultimately successful business plan, helped draw up a business plan for the WUSA, which the investors rejected. (Also interesting in that story: WUSA appealed to Phil Anschutz, who at the time owned several MLS teams, before it closed up shop in 2003. If only we could interview the famously reclusive Anschutz to ask why he said no.)

3. MLS made a late bid of its own to counter the eventual WUSA proposal, though details were sketchy. You can see the reaction here.

4. Women’s players had two reasons not to go with MLS at the time. First, they had a fresh dispute with USSF. Second, MLS was far from the juggernaut it is today. You might be able to dispute Point A. If you want to dispute Point B, talk to the lawyers who spent 2000 arguing for the league’s life in court or talk to your local Tampa Bay Mutiny fan.

All of this came about in the context of where women’s soccer goes from here. Foudy’s column suggested that MLS involvement would make more sense today than it would have in 1999.

Hard to see why that’s a controversial point. The disputes between the women’s national team and U.S. Soccer are largely a thing of the past. And MLS has come a long, long way from contracting two teams in 2001.

And yet, MLS and its teams have a right to be wary. They’re still not swimming in profit. A women’s league could be done cheaply — you could fund several good teams just on David Beckham’s salary — but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good investment.

That leads to one curious point, though. If MLS isn’t quite to the point at which it can support a small-scale women’s league today, why was arrogant of the WUSA founders (players and executives) to spurn MLS involvement when the league was in a downturn in 2001?

Starting a women’s sports league is difficult — only the WNBA is still around, and it might not be here if not for the NBA’s support. And starting a soccer league is difficult — the American pro landscape is littered with failed leagues, of which only two (the ASL of the 1920s/30s and the NASL of the late 60s-early 80s) made any impression.

So starting a women’s soccer league is doubly difficult. It requires a bit of trial and error. And it hardly seems fair to load it down with baggage from old conflicts few people fully understand.


9 thoughts on “Random bits of U.S. women’s pro soccer history

  1. I can’t understand the resentment regarding Julie Foudy’s supposed decade-old comments. Wait, I can, it’s mainly chauvinism mixed with a little of that “us vs. them” attitude that we all know and love so well. Even if Foudy did reject MLS back in the day, it would have been an understandable – if not downright solid – move at that time. MLS was struggling in every way. MLS was still trying to figure out how to market men’s soccer much less figure out how to get fans to latch on to women’s sides. The women did not want to be subject to the financial whims of the people running MLS and its franchises (ask Santos and Hamburg and Man U Women how beneficial their “partnerships” with men’s sides have been). And frankly, MLS would have been capitalizing off of the accomplishments of the ’99 USWNT with no reciprocal benefit for the women.

    The mistake WUSA made is clear – they overestimated the amount of interest that would carry over from the international game to the professional game (particularly having had the Cup in country and winning it – two extraordinary circumstances). This resulted in an overestimation of attendance, revenue, and longevity. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that women’s soccer insiders have yet to learn. Millions of people watch both editions of the world cup that would normally never tune into a sporting event, men’s or women’s, much less soccer. Patriotism (especially the once every four years variety) doesn’t translate to local markets and the pro game. And the millions of young girls (and boys, they have eyeballs and disposable income too) playing at youth levels aren’t necessarily going to be soccer fans, much less paying customers, just because they happen to play for fun. What league has ever been propped up by youths? Hell, most paying customers for the big four leagues probably never played organized ball.

    Semi-pro seems the way to build for now. Moderate costs, no reliance on the financial health of men’s teams, and the incentive to get your butt out and promote the game (hopefully to more than just 5-15 y/o girls). Like every other sports league in the history of pro sports, it’s going to take time, effort, and sacrifice (USWNT, you’ve got to play along…full time at that).

  2. Would that WUSA had had more of a WPS budget. The $100 million that the WUSA blew through in three years would probably have kept WPS going for at least a decade.

  3. Great post. Historical perspective is badly needed in any discussion of the future viability of women’s professional soccer. It should be noted that there were more than two decades of struggles and failures with men’s professional basketball -at both the club and league level- before the NBA came into existence, and even then, professional basketball operated on a small scale for several more decades (until the late ’60). This isn’t to say that women’s soccer will follow the same or a similiar path as basketball. Rather to point out that sports is a tough business (with a high risk, low return on the investment) and that becoming established will take more time than most fans think it will.
    Looking at the history of the major North American sports leagues and comparing them with the WPS, one thing stands out: the need for women’s soccer to be sanctioned as professional by an outside entity that bears no costs for the mandates they require. I know there is no way to get rid of these requirements, nor am I arguing that they should be done away with, but it would be interesting to know how much of a burden they are to the teams financially. If it is a major burden, this would be the best argument for the USSF to directly subsidize any women’s pro league -or baring that, the MLS.
    Regarding the USSF, does anyone know why they have been completely uninterested in having a domestic women’s pro league? It seems to me that they are only interested in maintaining their position over the women’s game, even if it is to the detriment of women’s soccer and the national team in the short and long run.

  4. It seems the USSF doesn’t see profitability anytime soon, and the success of the women’s national team over the years probably has them convinced that a pro league is not a necessity for player discovery and development. If we had failed to qualify for the 2011 world cup, I guarantee that the USSF would have stepped in and helped finance WPS or another small women’s pro league. It may take a “disaster” of that type to get them to protect the crown jewel of the women’s game that is the USWNT.

  5. “It should be noted that there were more than two decades of struggles and failures with men’s professional basketball -at both the club and league level- before the NBA came into existence, and even then, professional basketball operated on a small scale for several more decades (until the late ’60).”

    The NBA probably owes its existence until the age of television to one barnstorming team that has been in existence since the 1920’s called the Harlem Globetrotters and one player that made the NBA a major sports league in the USA, Wilt Chamberlain and his 100 point NBA game.

    If you think WPS attendance was bad just consider the audience that was present when Wilt threw down 100 points in one game. 4124 is the listed attendance. Of course, probably a few hundred thousand today would claim they were in the arena and witnessed Wilt score 100 points in 1962.

    Professional sports in the US always had this Darwinian survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, quality. American free market capitalism at its most extreme. Leagues and tours have come and gone. Sports and entertainment have been mixed together in ways where it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Whatever happened to boxing in this country? Remember Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay)? Money has been the ultimate arbitrator of a sport’s survival and growth in this great land of ours.

    There is no “Minister of Sports” in the United States. (what does a Minister of Sports do anyway?). It’s one big free for all with the NFL the current pole leader.

    I think the future of Women’s Soccer in the United States is really going to be up to the USSF. Professional Women’s Soccer as an independent sports venture is a failure in the United States. IMHO, its going to be like Indoor team volleyball, a popular sport in the NCAA schools and maybe on the beach and a highly ranked USA national team, but no prospects for a real pro league in the USA.

    I don’t think success at the 2012 Olympics will make any difference. The USA won gold in 2004 and 2008. Winning gold in those years did not translate into a successful professional league for women’s soccer in the US. Sometimes I think the 1999 WWC was more of a mirage that any new reality.

  6. “Looking at the history of the major North American sports leagues and comparing them with the WPS, one thing stands out: the need for women’s soccer to be sanctioned as professional by an outside entity that bears no costs for the mandates they require.”

    If this refers to FIFA, the same thing applies for men’s soccer.

    FIFA does exert substantial control over the sport in the USA. The biggest “mandate” imposed on Pro Soccer in the U.S is control over the playing rules of the game. Can the rules be changed by the Pro League or does FIFA have final say? Could the offside rule be changed by WPS or MLS to “increase scoring”?

    No other -successful- pro sport or league in the USA allows an outside entity to exercise control over the playing rules of their game. Maybe lawful government could be excepted but no other.

    Getting back to Pro Basketball from earleir, The most critical rule change the NBA made to the playing rules of the game was back in the 1950’s with the introduction of the 24 second shot clock. That single “rule change” (only possible with technology) helped make the NBA a success as opposed to earlier attempts at creating a pro basketball league. No more stall games. Other NBA rule changes over time included the goal tending rule, the expansion of the 3 second zone (the Wilt Chamberlain rules), and the 3 point field goal.

    The NBA did not seek the sanction of FIBA to make its rule changes.
    The playing rules were very different in FIBA games, and in the NCAA too, for a period of time.

    Trying to change the playing rules of Soccer in the US, like the playing rules of pro basketball in the US have been changed, couldn’t be done. It would be high heresy.

  7. a business partner has proposed that we start a womans professional league in the Ohio, Michigan, Indiana area. We are not looking for the the female Pele, just women who have talent and want to play and to find fans who will support it.

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